Monday, June 21, 2010

The Vikings: A History

Author: Robert Ferguson
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 382 pages without notes and index
Cost: $32.95 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in the "New" section of the library, having a vague recollection of the author. I looked back through my copies of BBC History Magazine, and the author composed a cover feature for the magazine in December 2009; however the title of his book is listed there as The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings. I believe this is an American publication of the same book.

The Backstory

What scholars term "The Viking Age" loosely spans between the 8th and 11th centuries, and the "Vikings" are generally identified as Scandinavians living in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark at that time. The beginning of "The Viking Age" is most often considered to be June 8, 793 B.C.E., when a group of "vikings" attacked the abbey at Lindisfarne in what was the beginning of centuries of similar raids on forts, towns, churches, and cities throughout Europe and into Asia. There are several theories surrounding why these raids suddenly occurred and were carried out with memorable ruthlessness. There seems to have been tensions between the Christianized parts of Europe and those that remained heathen, and recent scholars identify Charlemagne's brutal treatment of Saxons in his empire (who were pagan) as one possible reason why attacks on buildings with distinctly Christian associations were so violent. Another possibility involves an increase in the population in Scandinavia to the point that bands of young men had to find their fortune, literally and figuratively, away from home. Whatever the reasons, "The Viking Age" can be viewed in two distinct stages--raiding and later, settlement.

Some of the greatest names of the early medieval period are associated with "The Viking Age." In Ireland, the semi-mythical king, Brian Boru, is said to have engaged in a definitive battle with the Vikings, the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014 after years of viking settlement and assimilation. In England, King Alfred the Great proved a formidable opponent to the viking leader, Guthrum, and their mutual respect led to the development of the "Danelaw," or the division of England into two "kingdoms" administered on one side by Alfred and on the other by Guthrum. Aethelred the Unready, ruling England about 100 years after Alfred, proved too week to counter continuous viking attacks, and his death, followed quickly by the death of his son, Edmund Ironside, left England in the hands of King Cnut. Cnut would famously marry Aethelred's widow, Emma. Viking raids in France began during the reign of Charlemagne and would continuously threaten the stability of the Frankish empire after the division of his kingdom among his sons. Viking expansion led to the settlement of Iceland, Greenland (temporarily), and part of North America (also temporarily). Their history comes down to us through sources left behind by those who were subjected to their violence, a series of sagas and poems composed by Scandinavians, and some descriptions made by observers, notably Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim.

As settlement slowly replaced raiding as the primary goal of the vikings, "The Viking Age" came to a close in the 11th century. A viking imprint was left in places like England, Normandy, and Ireland, where the vikings settled the longest. The image of a fur-covered warrior bearded, with long hair, and a horned helmet is primarily the creation of the Victorian Age, whose historians attempted to make the vikings into an "other." In reality, the vikings were one piece of an intricate, interacting puzzle in the early Middle Ages, and as much as their culture was felt in places they attacked, and later, settled, influences from these people were not unfelt back home in Scandinavia. The greatest influence was Christianity, which was gradually introduced through a combination of interaction with Christians, efforts by missionaries, and the influence of kings and noblemen who chose Christianity over traditional paganism. By the 11th century, raiding became a thing of the past as kingdoms solidified into political units more difficult to deal with. Without question, "The Viking Age" had a profound impact on those who lived through it in language, settlement patterns, shipping culture, and art.

What About the Book?

Writing a comprehensive, readable history of a time period that spans 300 years and dozens of cultures is a nearly impossible task, although Ferguson takes it on admirably. The book is a good read and manages to skim the surface of the major time periods, individuals, and areas associated with the vikings. However, I'm afraid this was too big a task overall--but you can't blame the author for the nature of the beast. A history like this could have spanned volumes. Every time period, every part of Europe mentioned here, could have formed a book in and of itself without trouble. Ferguson makes a valiant attempt to try and put it all together in one, and it is a good overview that introduces the readers to a variety of interesting cultural elements and people.

The problem with this book, outside of the sheer amount of information, is how it is organized--and I am sure not everyone would agree with me about this. Ferguson bounces around between different parts of Europe and Asia, it seems to try and make a homogenized whole of the book chronologically. However, with so many people and so many sources, it really is impossible to follow the same area of Europe or Asia through it as an "uninformed" reader. Areas I know something about, like England's history, were far more readable to me because I knew the names and I knew the chronology. However, I didn't have the background to make the same connections and evaluations regarding France, Spain, Iceland, Scandinavia, Denmark, and parts of Asia, and this was a drawback. One would be hard-pressed to find someone with very solid footing in all of these areas throughout this period. I think that the organization of this book is a product of the author's knowledgeablity of this topic and probably, these areas. It is clear from his biography that he knows this topic very well, but in his attempt to include everything, he forgot that not everyone has that fundamental background. If he had focused on one area, brought it through "The Viking Age," and moved on to another, I think the reader would have had an easier time. Because it is not organized that way, the reader has to remind himself/herself who the people are each time Ferguson returns to the different areas of Europe and Asia--a drawback if you don't read the book in large chunks.

In addition, Ferguson also attempts to include too much information that regularly leads him on tangents. These tangents are definitely interesting, but they put the reader in a position where he/she is consistently asking "where is this going?" In fact, this lack of perceived unity is an argument for retaining the original title of the book, The Hammer and the Cross, because it actually gives the reader something with which to unify many of the these tangents. As a reader, I was expecting a history of the vikings only, but this is a history of the vikings and viking culture's interaction and acceptance of Christianity. Had the original title been retained, I would have had different expectations for the book--expectations that better aligned with the content.

As an advertised history of the vikings, there is a lot this book leaves out, including any detail about their social structure, their craftsmanship, and their culture. Women make brief, often unnotable appearances. Much of the book is a detail of the main viking leaders of the age and a history of their deeds and effects on the areas of Europe and Asia in which they operated. The rest focuses on Christianity and its gradual adoption by viking culture in Denmark and Scandinavia. To these ends, Ferguson does an admirable job. The writing produces a "quick read" effect for the reader. He clearly researched this very extensively, and he throws in a great deal of archaeological and documentary evidence, which is a great strength. The book feels the lack of an Epilogue or a chapter to round out the age properly, but the information is excellent and the book is generally very enjoyable.

Rating: A 7 as a history of the vikings. An 8.5 as a history of the vikings and Christianity. Admittedly, I wouldn't have picked this up had it been advertised as a history of the vikings and Christianity, which would have been a great loss.
Buy It or Borrow It: In this case, buy it if you're an avid viking fan or researching the topic--all of your primary sources are named in here at least once. In other cases, borrow it and photocopy the parts of it that focus on the time period or geographic area of your interest. Don't buy it if you're just looking for a good read--this is a bit too historian-speak for that.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Film Interlude: Victoria and Albert

Year Released: 2001
Production Company: BBC
Rating: PG
Starring: Victoria Hamilton, Jonathan Firth

What's the Story?

This two-part TV mini-series covers the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert from before Victoria's accession to Albert's death.

It begins with an older Victoria, confined to a wheelchair and brought into a room where Albert's grooming tools are being laid out by her servants. Then, the story flashes back to when Victoria is under the care of her mother, Victoire, the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy. Victoria is visited by her two German cousins, Ernest and Albert, and isn't particularly interested in Albert, deeming him dull. Although kept away from the royal court, she attends her uncle's birthday--William IV portrayed by Peter Ustinov--where his dissatisfaction with the Duchess of Kent's decision to seclude Victoria is demonstrated to the court. Victoria is notified about her uncle's death in 1837, just after she turned 18 years old, and she becomes queen of England. Here, she separates herself from her mother, dismisses Sir John Conroy, and meets MP Lord Melbourne who is her first favorite and trusted friend.

King Leopold of Belgium makes a state visit and pushes Albert's suit on Victoria, and although her ministers are opposed to receiving Albert, Albert visits Victoria with his brother, Ernest. Although Victoria had declared that she was opposed to marrying at all, she is immediately taken with Albert, and asks him to marry her. However, Albert expresses deep concerns about his feelings for Victoria--although he is aware of her deep feelings for him, he admits that he does not love her. Albert immediately becomes aware of his situation as his wife goes off to work after their first night together. He offers to help Victoria, but this is dismissed. Albert encourages changes in the royal household and works to reconcile Victoria and her mother. Victoria becomes pregnant and gives birth to their first child, and Albert's devoted love for his children is born along with her. Gradually, Albert's influence in the royal household grows, especially after their two-year-old daughter takes ill.

The story cuts to around 1850 when Victoria and Albert have several children together and have created a warm, close home for them together. Albert works tirelessly on the Great Exhibition of 1851, which is opened by a speech by Victoria where she expresses her thanks to Albert for all of his hard work. In a moment stolen before a state event, Albert expresses his emotional reaction to Victoria's speech, and he tells her that he loves her.

The story cuts again to another ten years later where Victoria visits her mother while her mother lays close to death. Victoria and Albert's oldest son, Edward or Bertie, isn't serious enough about his studies, and is admonished by his father for this. Albert later visits Bertie at school and returns home wet and increasingly ill. As the family sets up for the Christmas holiday, Albert dies, and Victoria, after sobbing, lights the candles on the Christmas Tree in memory of Albert.

The last scene cuts back to the older Victoria, sitting in the dressing room, examining Albert's things and lost in his memory.


This is worth seeing, especially if you're a fan of BBC multi-part period dramas. You'll see a lot of familiar faces from other BBC series, including Diana Rigg. Just like the others, it's long--the total running time is over three hours, and the series was originally divided into two installments of just over an hour and a half each.

The series spends a little too much time on Victoria by herself and not enough on Albert--Albert marries Victoria over an hour into the first half of the program, and his appearances prior to that are reserved to a few snippets. If the program was going to be called "Victoria and Albert," Albert should have had just as much time on screen. I think that the relationship between Victoria and Albert is portrayed very realistically, as is Victoria's character. Albert is a little stiff, but he did have that reputation in reality, so this may be equally realistic. Peter Ustinov is really fantastic as William IV, and Diana Rigg does an equally good job as Baroness Lehzen, Victoria's "governess." Victoria Hamilton, who has appeared in many BBC dramas, is a very convincing Victoria. With this combination of characters, it would be hard to go wrong.

The story follows history pretty closely with few snags. It does conveniently skip a few things, and it downplays the fact that Albert was not particularly well-liked, mostly for prejudice against foreigners, but also because of his "priggishness." The differences between Victoria and Albert are also downplayed--Albert disliked public engagements and late nights, while Victoria tended to enjoy them.

The program gives enough history--history that could fit into the two parts, that is. This easily could have been a six- or seven-part series, too, covering their growing family, the purchase of properties in Scotland and on the Isle of Wight, the changes in politics, their eldest daughter's marriage, and/or their state visits abroad. However, it could easily become too long, so although the series skips several things that would have been intersting to include, the viewer isn't left in want of them.

Overall, it was very enjoyable judged on its own. It isn't as colorful as some other BBC series, but the actors do not disappoint given the focus is on relationships with events in the background, and the writers deserve credit for sticking to the history probably more strictly than any other BBC series I've seen.

Final Verdict: I give this a solid B. I'll probably rent it again somewhere along the lines, but I didn't feel the need to watch it several times over or to run out and purchase it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"We Two" Victoria And Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals

Author; Gillian Gill
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 383 pages without notes and bibliography
Cost: $35.00 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this wandering around in the library, and I was attracted to the subject having just seen the new film, The Young Victoria.

The Backstory

I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't heard of England's Queen Victoria. She is the longest-reigning monarch in English history, and during her administration, England was transformed from a small, island country into the center of a massive empire that covered 1/4 of the globe. She is also associated with a social and cultural trend we term "Victorianism," which in today's society is a byword for a dull marriage to industrialization at the expense of the masses, the widely rejected concept of the "separate spheres" of men and women, and sexual prudism.

Victoria was born in 1819, the daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, and his wife, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. For a long time, it didn't seem probable that Victoria would ever become queen. Her father was George III's fourth son, preceded in the birth order by the future King George IV, Frederick, Duke of York (who died in 1827, three years before his older brother), and William IV. George IV had a daughter, Charlotte, who died in childbirth along with her infant son, and neither Frederick nor William IV had legitimate children. Although the fifth son, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, did have a son, George, Victoria was the offspring of the fourth son, and therefore, preceded him in the family line. Victoria was a woman, and certainly at a handicap in the minds of the English population at the time, but Elizabeth I set a standard for successful female monarchs, and England would only rejoice at the prospect of the reign of a second Elizabeth.

As her father died in 1820, Victoria was raised by her mother who was dominated by Sir John Conroy, an overbearing man who viewed Victoire and her little daughter as his ticket to power. Throughout her childhood, Victoria was constantly watched and her life was heavily regimented. In 1837, her uncle, William IV, died, and Victoria became queen.

A year before, Victoria first met Albert, her first cousin and son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. His parents, Ernest III of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg was initially a happy one, but Ernest did not discontinue his sexual exploits, and the couple separated in 1824. Albert spent his youth with his older brother, Ernest. They shared an education at home until sent to the University of Bonn. Albert's marriage to Victoria had been contemplated by many family members, the most prominent of which was King Leopold of Belgium. Albert returned for a second visit to England in 1839. The visit was a success, and Victoria and Albert married in 1840.

Victoria and Albert had nine children together, and all of them lived to adulthood. Prince Albert saw his greatest triumph with the Great Exhibition of 1851, and he increasingly insisted upon having a hand in foreign affairs. Victoria was popular with the English people, but the public remained skeptical of a cold, foreign prince. Albert's biggest problem lie in his status--he was offered no official position other than "prince consort," which was an elastic title that had never been defined in terms of place and function in England. Although Victoria implicitly trusted Albert and he became her personal secretary, he never fit comfortably into what he viewed as a second-rate role in England.

Albert died in 1861 of typhoid fever after having visited his son, the future Edward VII, at school. For some time, Victoria blamed Edward for his father's death as they had spent many hours outdoors together in the rain, but it is clear that Albert was suffering from the disease long before this visit and his unwillingness to rest sapped his immune system's ability to fight the illness. Victoria went into mourning and would dress simply, in black, for the rest of her life. Victoria died in 1901 at the age of 81 having outlived her husband by nearly 40 years.

What About the Book?

Gill's book is an exceptional scholarly work that reads very comfortably from cover to cover. Occasionally, the progression of chapters does not entirely work together. Because she treats topics in each chapter, one chapter may proceed through several years in the history of the couple, and the reader is sometimes forced back as many as ten years when a new chapter, or topic, begins. This forces the reader to remind himself/herself of the circumstances surrounding that particular time frame, but those circumstances may have been covered 150 pages before in the book. In addition, there are a few places where she alludes to a certain issue, but will put off discussing that issue for several chapters. I read the book in a few long sittings, which made dealing with these inconsistencies easier, but if someone is going to read it chapter by chapter over the course of a few weeks, it may be difficult to recall people and events between them.

One thing that readers will probably conclude is that neither Victoria nor Albert come out of the book as likable characters. Albert is fully the prudish, controlling, misogynist German prince of English lore and Victoria is the needy, lovestruck, obedient wife featured in numerous films and mini-series. Gill is plagued by a few problems, including an all-blinding feminism that creeps into the book. Although she attempts to explain circumstances in the context of their time, her view of Albert is clearly biased from the start. For example, she treats Victoria's life in nearly 90 pages at the beginning of the book, and Albert receives about 55 as his share. Gill mentions Albert's glowing points--his tender nature as a father, his intelligence, and his concern for his wife's well-being. However, everything Albert did and believed comes under critical scrutiny to the point that one finishes the book truly doubting whether Albert had any good qualities, whether Victoria was the strong character Gill asserts at the beginning of the book, or that they ever had a loving relationship regardless of the existing evidence--their successful marriage by royal standards and notably, their nine children.

For all of these faults, the book is extremely enlightening and well-researched. Gill clearly examined numerous documents, and each topic forms a tight, detailed chapter even if the chapters don't fit together for the ease of the reader. The writing style makes it easy to read, and it is probably the best analysis of the relationship between Victoria and Albert ever composed. The reader has to be aware of the author's biases and sift through the information, but there are enough facts to do this included in the text. Gill also assumes that her readers may not understand things like the order of succession, and she spends time explaining these, which I am sure will help many readers along. Her writing style is very fluid and clear, and her treatment of the topic is interesting enough that readers will complete the book having gained something from it whether or not that reader has a strong background in Victorian England to start with.

Rating: 7.5, but that is based on my coming to the book without much of a background in the history. I learned a great deal, but I'm not sure that someone else who has a greater familiarity with Victoria and Albert would feel the same given the bias of the author.
Buy It or Borrow It: Definitely borrow it at the moment. Since it was published last year, a paperback probably won't be available for a little while. The notes are excellent, and if someone is studying the subject, I would recommend purchasing the book when it does come out in paperback for research purposes.